How seven percent of a section within a nation ruled five million white people and owned four million black people and sought to make agriculture equal to industry through the rule of property without yielding political power or education to labor.
Seven percent of the total population of the South in 1860 owned nearly 3 million of the 3,953,696 slaves. There was nearly as great a concentration of ownership in the best agricultural land. This meant that in a country predominantly agricultural, the ownership of labor, land and capital was extraordinarily concentrated. …
Of the five million whites who owned no slaves some were united in interest with the slave owners. These were overseers, drivers and dealers in slaves. Others were hirers of white and black labor, and still others were merchants and professional men, forming a petty bourgeois class, and climbing up to the planter class or falling down from it. The mass of the poor whites, as we have shown, were economic outcasts.
Into the hands of the slaveholders, the political power of the South was concentrated by their social prestige, by property ownership and also by their extraordinary rule of the counting of all or at least three-fifths of the Negroes as part of the basis of representation in the legislature. It is singular how this Athree-fifths@ compromise was used, not only to degrade Negroes in theory, but in practice to disfranchise the white South. Nearly all of the Southern states began with recognizing the white population as a basis of representation; they afterward favored the black belt by direct legislation or by counting three-fifths of the slave population, and then finally by counting the whole black population; or they established, as in Virginia and South Carolina, a Amixed@ basis of representation based on white population and on property; that is, on land and slaves.
In all cases, the slaveholder practically voted both for himself and his slaves and it was not until 1850, and particularly after the war, that there were signs of self-assertion on the part of the poor whites to break this monopoly of power. Alabama, for instance, in 1850, based representation in the general assembly upon the white inhabitants, after thirty years of counting the whole white and black population. Thus ,the Southern planters had in their hands from 1820 to the Civil War political power equivalent to one or two million freemen in the North.
They fought bitterly during the early stages of Reconstruction to retain this power for the whites, while at the same time granting no political power to the blacks.
Finally and up to this day, by making good their efforts to disfranchise the blacks, the political heirs of the planters still retain for themselves this added political representations as a legacy from slavery, and a slavery and a power to frustrate all third party movements.
Thus, the planter who owned from fifty to one thousand slaves and from one thousand to ten thousand acres of land came to fill the whole picture in the South, and literature and the propaganda which is usually called history have since exaggerated that picture. The planter certainly dominated politics and social lifeB he boasted of his education, but on the whole, these Southern leaders were singularly ignorant of modern conditions and trends and of their historical background. All their ideas of gentility and education went back to the days of European privilege and caste. They cultivated a surface acquaintance with literature and they threw Latin quotations even into Congress. Some had a cultural education at Princeton and at Yale, and to this day Princeton refuses to receive Negro students, and Yale has admitted a few with reluctance, as a curious legacy from slavery.
The leaders of the South had leisure for good breeding and high living, and before them Northern society abased itself and flattered and fawned over them. Perhaps this, more than ethical reasons, or even economic advantage, made the way of the abolitionist hard. In New York, Saratoga, Philadelphia and Cincinnati, a slave baron, with his fine raiment, gorgeous and doll-like women and black flunkies, quite turned the heads of Northern society. Their habits of extravagance impressed the nation for a long period.
Much of the waste charged against Reconstruction arose from the attempt of the post-war population, white and black, to imitate the manners of a slave-nurtured gentility, and this brought furious protest from former planters; because while planters spent money filched from the labor of black slaves, the poor white and black leaders of Reconstruction spent taxes drawn from recently impoverished planters.
From an economic point of view, this planter class had interest in consumption rather than production. They exploited labor in order that they themselves should live more grandly and not mainly for increasing production. Their taste went to elaborate households, well-furnished and hospitable; they had much to eat and drink; they consumed large quantities of liquor; they gambled and caroused and kept up the habit of dueling well down into the nineteenth century. Sexually, they were lawless, protecting elaborately and flattering the virginity of a small class of women of their social clan, and keeping at command millions of poor women of the two laboring groups of the South.
Sexual chaos was always the possibility of slavery, not always realized but always possible: polygamy through the concubinage of black women to white men; polyandry between black women and selected men on plantations in order to improve the human stock of strong and able workers. The census of 1860 counted 588,352 persons obviously of mixed blood-a figure admittedly below the truth.
AEvery man who resides on his plantation may have his harem, and has every inducement of custom, and of pecuniary gain. [The law declares that the children of slaves are to follow the fortunes of the mother. Hence the practice of planters selling and bequeathing their own children.], to tempt him to the common practice. Those who, notwithstanding, keep their homes undefiled may be considered as of incorruptible purity.@
And finally, one cannot forget that bitter word attributed to a sister of a President of the United States: AWe Southern ladies are complimented with names of wives, but we are only mistresses of seraglios.@
What the planters wanted was income large enough to maintain the level of living which was their ideal. Naturally, only a few of them had enough for this, and the rest, striving toward it, were perpetually in debt and querulously seeking a reason for this indebtedness outside themselves. Since it was beneath the dignity of a Agentleman@ to encumber himself with the details of his finances, this lordly excuse enabled the planter to place between himself and the black slave a series of intermediaries through whom bitter pressure and exploitation could be exercised and large crops raised. For the very reason that the planters did not give attention to details, there was wide tendency to commercialize their growing business of supplying raw materials for an expanding modern industry. They were the last to comprehend the revolution through which that industry was passing and their efforts to increase income succeeded only at the cost of raping the land and degrading the laborers.
The South, with free rich land and cheap labor, had the monopoly of cotton, a material in universal demand. If the leaders of the South, while keeping the consumer in mind, had turned more thoughtfully to the problem of the American producer, and had guided the production of cotton and food so as to take every advantage of new machinery and modern methods in agriculture, they might have moved forward with manufacture and been able to secure an approximately large amount of profit. But this would have involved yielding to the demands of modern labor: opportunity for education, legal protection of women and children, regulation of the hours of work, steadily increasing wages and the right to some voice in the administration of the state if not in the conduct of industry.
Beneath this educational and social propaganda lay the undoubted evidence of the planter=s own expenses. He saw ignorant and sullen labor deliberately reducing his profits. In fact, he always faced the negative attitude of the general strike. Open revolt of slavesBrefusal to work–could be met by beating and selling to the harsher methods of the deep South and Southwest as punishment. Running away could be curbed by law and police. But nothing could stop the dogged slave from doing just as little and as poor work as possible. All observers spoke of the fact that the slaves were slow and churlish; that they wasted material and malingered at their work. Of course they did. This was not racial but economic. It was the answer of any group of laborers forced down to the last ditch.
If the European or Northern laborer did not do his work properly and fast enough, he would lose the job. The black slave could not lose his job. If the Northern laborer got sick or injured, he was discharged, usually without compensation; the black slave could not be discharged and had to be given some care in sicknesses, particularly if he represented a valuable investment. The Northern and English employer could select workers in the prime of life and did not have to pay children too young to work or adults too old. The slave owner had to take care of children and old folk, and while this did not cost much on a farm or entail any great care, it did seriously cut down the proportion of his effective laborers, which could only be balanced by the systematic labor of women and children. The children ran loose with only the most general control, getting their food with the other slaves. The old folk foraged for themselves. Now and then they were found dead of neglect, but usually there was no trouble in their getting at least enough food to live and some rude shelter.
The economic difficulties that thus faced the planter in exploiting the black slave were curious. Contrary to the trend of his age, he could not use higher wages to induce better work or a larger supply of labor. He could not allow his labor to become intelligent, although intelligent labor would greatly increase the production of wealth. He could not depend on voluntary immigration unless the immigrants be slaves, and he must bear the burden of the old and sick and could only balance this by child labor and the labor of women.
The use of slave women as day workers naturally broke up or made impossible the normal Negro home and this and the slave code led to a development of which the South was really ashamed and which it often denied, and yet perfectly evident: the raising of slaves in the border slave states for systematic sale on the commercialized cotton plantations.
The ability of the slaveholder and landlord to sequester a large share of the profits of slave labor depended upon his exploitation of that labor, rather than upon high prices for his product in the market.
But there was another motive which more and more strongly as time went on compelled the planter to cling to slavery. His political power was based on slavery. With four million slaves he could balance the votes of 2,400,000 Northern voters, while in the inconceivable event of their becoming free, their votes would outnumber those of his Northern opponents, which was precisely what happened in 1868.
As the economic power of the planter waned, his political power became more and more indispensable to the maintenance of his income and profits. Holding his industrial system secure by this political domination, the planter turned to the more systematic exploitation of his black labor. One method called for more land and the other for more slaves. Both meant not only increased crops but increased political power. It was a temptation that swept greed, religion, military pride and dreams of empire to its defense.
In no respect are the peculiar psychological difficulties of the planters better illustrated than with regard to the interstate slave trade. The theory was clear and lofty; slaves were a part of the family- Amy people,@ George Washington called them.
This was the theory, but as a matter of fact, the cotton planters were supplied with laborers by the Border States. A laboring stock was deliberately bred for legal sale. A large number of persons followed the profession of promoting this sale of slaves. There were markets and quotations, and the stream of black labor, moving continuously into the South, reached yearly into the thousands.
Notwithstanding these perfectly clear and authenticated facts, the planter persistently denied them. He denied that there was any considerable interstate sale of slaves; he denied that families were broken up; he insisted that slave auctions were due to death or mischance, and particularly did he insist that the slave traders were the least of human beings and most despised.
This deliberate contradiction of plain facts constitutes itself a major charge against slavery and shows how the system often so affronted the moral sense of the planters themselves that they tried to hide from it. They could not face the fact of Negro women as brood mares and of black children as puppies.
Indeed, while we speak of the planters as one essentially unvarying group, there is evidence that the necessities of their economic organization were continually changing and deteriorating their morale and pushing forward ruder, noisier, less cultivated elements than characterized the Southern gentleman of earlier days. Certainly, the cursing, brawling, whoring gamblers who largely represented the South in the late fifties, evidenced the inevitable deterioration that overtakes men when their desire for income and extravagance overwhelms their respect for human beings. Thus the interstate slave trade grew and flourished and the demand for the African slave trade was rapidly becoming irresistible in the late fifties.
From fifty to eighty thousand slaves went from the Border States to the lower South in the last decade of slavery. One planter frankly said that he Acalculated that the moment a colored baby was born, it was worth to him $300.@ So far as possible, the planters in selling off their slaves avoided the breaking up of families. But they were facing flat economic facts. The persons who were buying slaves in the cotton belt were not buying families, they were buying workers, and thus by economic demand families were continually and regularly broken up; the father was sold away; the mother and the half-grown children separated, and sometimes smaller children were sold. One of the subsequent tragedies of the system was the frantic efforts, before and after emancipation, of Negroes hunting for their relatives throughout the United States.
A Southerner wrote to Olmsted: AIn the states of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri, as much attention is paid to the breeding and growth of Negroes as to that of horses and mules. Further south, we raise them both for use and for market. Planters command their girls and women (married or unmarried) to have children; and I have known a great many Negro girls to be sold off because they did not have children. A breeding woman is worth from one-sixth to one-fourth more than one that does not breed.@
Sexual chaos arose from economic motives. The deliberate breeding of a strong, big field-hand stock could be carried out by selecting proper males, and giving them the run of the likeliest females. This in many Border States became a regular policy and fed the slave trade. Child bearing was a profitable occupation, which received every possible encouragement, and there was not only no bar to illegitimacy, but an actual premium put upon it. Indeed, the word was impossible of meaning under the slave system.
Moncure D. Conway, whose father was a slaveholder near Fredericksburg, Virginia, wrote: AAs a general thing, the chief pecuniary resource in the Border States is the breeding of slaves, and I grieve to say that there is too much ground for the charges that general licentiousness among the slaves, for the purpose of a large increase, is compelled by some masters and encouraged by many. The period of maternity is hastened, the average youth of Negro mothers being nearly three years earlier than that of any free race, and an old maid is utterly unknown among the women.@
J. E. Cairnes, the English economist, in his passage with Mr. McHenry on this subject, computed from reliable data that Virginia had bred and exported to the cotton states between the years of 1840 and 1850 no less than 100,000 slaves, which at $500 per head would have yielded her $50,000,000.
The South elected to make its fight through the political power which it possessed because of slavery and the disfranchisement of poor whites. It had in American history chosen eleven out of sixteen presidents, seventeen out of twenty-eight Judges of the Supreme Court, fourteen out of nineteen attorneys general, twenty-one out of thirty-three Speakers of the House, eighty out of one hundred thirty-four foreign ministers. It demanded a fugitive slave law as strong as words could make it and it was offered constitutional guarantees which would have made it impossible for the North to meddle with the organization of the slave empire.
The abolition of American slavery started the transportation of capital from white to black countries where slavery prevailed, with the same tremendous and awful consequences upon the laboring classes of the world which we see about us today. When raw material could not be raised in a country like the United States, it could be raised in the tropics and semi tropics under a dictatorship of industry, commerce and manufacture and with no free farming class.
The competition of a slave-directed agriculture in the West Indies and South America, in Africa and Asia, eventually ruined the economic efficiency of agriculture in the United States and in Europe and precipitated the modern economic degradation of the white farmer, while it put into the hands of the owners of the machine such a monopoly of raw material that their domination of white labor was more and more complete.
What irritated the planter and made him charge the North and liberal Europe with hypocrisy was the ethical implications of slav-ery. He was kept explaining a system of work which he insisted was no different in essence from that in vogue in Europe and the North. They and he were all exploiting labor. He did it by individual right; they by state law. They called their labor free, but after all, the laborer was only free to starve, if he did not work on their terms. They called his laborer a slave when his master was responsible for him from birth to death.
What the planter and his Northern apologist did not readily admit was that this exploitation of labor reduced it to a wage so low and a standard of living so pitiable that no modern industry in agriculture or trade or manufacture could build upon it; that it made ignorance compulsory and had to do so in self-defense; and that it automatically was keeping the South from entering the great stream of modern industry where growing intelligence among workers, a rising standard of living among the masses, increased personal freedom and political power, were recognized as absolutely necessary.
The ethical problem here presented was less important than the political and far less than the economic. The Southerners were as little conscious of the hurt they were inflicting on human beings as the Northerners were of their treatment of the insane. It is easy for men to discount and misunderstand the suffering or harm done others. Once accustomed to poverty, to the sight of toil and degradation, it easily seems normal and natural; once it is hidden beneath a different color of skin, a different stature or a different habit of action and speech, and all consciousness of inflicting ill disappears.
The Southern planter suffered, not simply for his economic mistakesBthe psychological effect of slavery upon him was fatal. The mere fact that a man could be, under the law, the actual master of the mind and body of human beings had to have disastrous effects. It tended to inflate the ego of most planters beyond all reason; they became arrogant, strutting, quarrelsome kinglets; they issued commands; they made laws; they shouted their orders; they expected deference and self-abasement; they were choleric and easily insulted. Their Ahonor@ became a vast and awful thing, requiring wide and insistent deference. Such of them as were inherently weak and in efficient were all the more easily angered, jealous and resentful; while the few who were superior physically or mentally, conceived no bounds to their power and personal prestige. As the world had long learned, nothing is so calculated to ruin human nature as absolute power over human beings.
On the other hand, the possession of such power did not and could not lead to its continued tyrannical exercise. The tyrant could be kind and congenial. He could care for his chattels like a father; he could grant indulgence and largess; he could play with power and find tremendous satisfaction in its benevolent use.
Thus, economically and morally, the situation of the planter became intolerable. What was needed was the force of great public opinion to make him see his economic mistakes and the moral debauchery that threatened him. But here again in the planter class, no room was made for the reformer, the recalcitrant. The men who dared such thought and act were driven out or suppressed with a virulent tyranny reminiscent of the Inquisition and the Reformation.
This whole system and plan of development failed and failed of its own weakness. Unending effort has gone into painting the claims of the Old South, its idyllic beauty and social charm. But the truth is inexorable. With all its fine men and sacrificing women, its hospitable homes and graceful manners, the South turned the most beautiful section of the nation into a center of poverty and suffering, of drinking, gambling and brawling; an abode of ignorance among black and white more abysmal than in any modern land; and a system of industry so humanly unjust and economically inefficient that if it had not committed suicide in civil war, it would have disintegrated of its own weight.
With the Civil War, the planters died as a class. We still talk as though the dominant social class in the South persisted after the war. But it did not. It disappeared. Just how quickly and in what manner the transformation was made, we do not know. No scientific study of the submergence of the remainder of the planter class into the ranks of the poor whites, and the corresponding rise of a portion of the poor whites into the dominant portion of landholders and capitalists, has been made.
Of the names of prominent Southern families in Congress in 1860, only two appear in 1870, five in 1880. Of 90 prominent names in 1870, only four survived in 1880. Men talk today as though the upper class in the white South is descended from the slaveholders, yet we know by plain mathematics that the ancestors of most of the present Southerners never owned a slave nor had any real economic part in slavery. The disaster of war decimated the planters; the bitter disappointment and frustration led to a tremendous mortality after the war, and from 1870 on the planter class merged their blood so completely with the rising poor whites that they disappeared as a separate aristocracy. It is this that explains so many characteristics of the postwar South: its lynching and mob law, its murders and cruelty, its insensibility to the finer things of civilization.